Director: Anubhav Sinha
Cast: Taapsee Pannu, Rishi Kapoor, Manoj Pahwa, Rajat Kapoor, Ashutosh Rana, Neena Gupta, Prateik Babbar
Mulk has a second half that makes you wonder if its setup was deliberately underwhelming to punctuate a rousing payoff. Written and directed by Anubhav Sinha (Tum Bin 2, Ra.One), it starts off awkwardly. We see grainy establishing shots of Banaras, followed by a strange scene that attempts to paint Prateik Babbar, a weak actor, as an aspiring extremist named Shahid Mohammed. Sinha then goes on to present a backdrop of blissful communal harmony.
In one long unbroken take, Shahid's joyous family is shown preparing to celebrate their retired patriarch's (Rishi Kapoor, as Murad Ali) 65th birthday. His younger brother Bilaal (a terrific Manoj Pahwa), Shahid's father, is introduced as a lazy, obese but good-hearted man who respects Murad for being everything he is not. Murad's daughter-in-law, Aarti (Taapsee Pannu), arrives from London for this occasion. Her name suggests that the Mohammeds are broad-minded, progressive traditionalists.
Of course, all their Hindu friends in the locality are invited, and some of these staunch vegetarians even sneak in a few bites of Murad's delicious Mutton Korma. It is to be expected that these same men will turn out to be bigots later when the Mohammed family is in tatters. They will sneer, taunt and stare at the house, and phrases involving 'Pakistan' and 'partition' will be hurled at their next-door neighbours. For a while, it feels like perhaps Sinha's biggest statement here might be the gimmick of having every Muslim in the story played by Hindu actors.
Things go south for the family when Shahid is identified as one of the terrorists behind multiple bomb blasts in Allahabad. Ironically, things go north for Mulk once the boy is out of the picture.
Taapsee Pannu, doubling up as the family's defense lawyer, is the hero – she goes from mute observer to raging whistleblower, speaking and snarling and crusading for an entire generation of liberal armchair activists.
The film is most compelling when there is no action at hand – that is, when it goes from generic social drama to angry courtroom drama. Courtroom sequences in Hindi cinema tend to be intense wish fulfillment exercises. These scenes essentially serve as narrative devices that allow the viewers to directly access the conversations in a filmmaker's head. There is no space for visual metaphors and cinematic ambiguity here; the characters simply communicate the writer's ideologies in the form of a debate. The showdowns are presented as hopeful versions of the real world, as live films occurring within films, with distinct roles assigned to its players: the judge is the director, the prosecution and defense lawyers standing in for the hero-villain dichotomy, the case is the story, its arguments the flashbacks, and its host of opinionated onlookers the audience and critics that define the sociocultural effects of the event.
Mulk, too, thrives on this arrangement. It is rational and clear-minded in its stance on Islamophobia. For once, Sinha doesn't have to 'construct' a series of actions – he uses words, dialogues, monologues and speeches to deconstruct the relationship between civilization and religion. Taapsee Pannu, doubling up as the family's defense lawyer, is the hero – she goes from mute observer to raging whistleblower, speaking and snarling and crusading for an entire generation of liberal armchair activists. Her cross-examining of the Superintendent of Police, Danish Javed (Rajat Kapoor), is a master-class in writing and crescendo-building: Aarti is an outsider who is trying to express what it is like to be an insider, while Danish is a disillusioned insider who wishes to be an outsider. When their worlds collide, there's a big bang of clarity and resolution.
Ashutosh Rana, as the public prosecutor, is the villain – like most of his predecessors (Boman Irani in Jolly LLB, Annu Kapoor in its sequel and Piyush Mishra in Pink), he is hammy, xenophobic and openly arrogant, because he in effect is an all-in-one embodiment of the bastardization of patriotism. It is hard to like Rana's character – a professional playing to the gallery and resorting to theatricality and lofty provocation on a public stage. It should be hard. He sounds familiar. And he stands for an entire cinematic genre: every jingoistic sports movie with an India v/s Pakistan climax, and every 'action/spy thriller' pivoting on superstar monologues with the national flag in the backdrop.
Notably, the people cheering and clapping for Aarti in a packed hall are the same people who applaud an Akshay Kumar or Salman Khan single-handedly defending their country's pride. This says a lot about our general ability to be swayed by anything – irrespective of contrasting philosophies – that is fitted into the framework of a populist narrative.
With the traumatized family of a terrorist on trial, the film is unflinching in its desire to answer difficult questions – are all terrorists Muslims? How does one "prove" love for the country?
With the traumatized family of a terrorist on trial, the film is unflinching in its desire to answer difficult questions – are all terrorists Muslims? How does one "prove" love for the country? Who should be held responsible when youngsters lose their ways? Do judiciaries react to the mood of the nation? Must minorities spend every waking hour being grateful to a nation for being (allegedly) inclusive? Are 'Us' and 'Them' merely the weapons of divisive politicians? Is the length of a beard inversely proportional to a sense of patriotism? It's only in the second half that the ploy of an all-Hindu cast acquires context – it isn't a careless statement against inclusivity, but a form of self-exorcizing atonement for a culture's deep-rooted bias. There is an odd sense of depth to see Kapoors, Guptas and Sinhas challenge the illusion of secularity by putting themselves on trial.
"Prejudice" is a term that eventually forms the foundation of Aarti's case. One by one, she calls out the prejudice of everyone present in the courtroom – including the viewers, and the journalists. At one point, her pleas sound personal, as if they were directly addressed at those watching her from beyond the screen. As film critics, I'd be lying if I said we go into press screenings with a completely open mind. Some of us have mentally dismissed the film on basis of a trailer, or in this case, the unsubtle tone and the director's previous work. This prejudice, at times, has the power to override our immediate reactions to a film.
Mulk, though, is a reminder that we are all part of that courtroom. Being surprised is a condescending emotion – and inherently a product of our own preconceived notions. It is also a reminder that the right film in this country is often better than a good one. Raazi was an example, but it was perhaps Meghna Gulzar's Talvar that had already conditioned us expect a skillful take on the rift between mulk and mazhab. In contrast, I came out of Sinha's film admittedly humbled, and of the belief that verdicts are best delivered after the closing statements.